Somewhere Truffaut remarks on the beauty of text on the screen. The written word, trapped in amber on the illuminated surface, takes on an iconic glow. In Fahrenheit 451 Truffaut celebrates the attraction of the written word by showing the film's renegade hero introducing himself to the banned art of reading by looking at everything in a book, including the front matter on the copyright page. At the other end of the artiness scale there's Brian De Palma's Carrie, in which the camera lovingly tracks across the words in a library book's definition of telekinesis, read aloud by Sissy Spacek in a delicious Texas twang.
Books and movies have obviously always had a rather unique relationship to each other. But if you stick your finger into the winds of the zeitgeist, the findings are ambiguous. Movies are more of an obsession with the public than ever, while many movie writers, such as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, and critic David Thomson in the new edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, admit, to one degree or another, preferring books to movies.
The intersection of books and movies reaches an apotheosis of sorts in Stone Reader. The film is Mark Moskowitz's documentary account of his search for the author of a book that first moved him and later obsessed him.
The book is called The Stones of Summer and was written by Dow Mossman, an early Iowa Writer's Workshop drone. The book was published by Bobbs Merrill in 1972. It received a glowing review in the New York Times, and then both the book and the author vanished from the literary landscape. Until, of course, Moskowitz turned on his headlights.
Moskowitz had read a review of the book at the time it came out and eventually found a mass market paperback version of the novel. He had a hard time reading it, and the book moved with him from one abode to another. Finally, he tells us, in the early '90s he knuckled down and read the book, only to discover that he loved it. Wanting to read more by and about Mossman, he discovered that not only was Stones of Summer Mossman's only book, but there was little information about the man at all. Moskowitz soon embarks on a quest: to find Mossman, and try to get the book back in print.
Moskowitz is a director of political commercials (mostly for Democrats from, based on the clips incorporated into the film), and is a man used to conveying information in sound bite-sized nuggets. In Stone Reader, however, he allows him self the luxury of laying out his tale in a rambling, discursive manner. It is only shortly before the end of the film's massive 127 running time mark that Moskowitz finally meets the target of his obsession.
One part The Thin Blue Line, in its struggle to right an injustice, and another part Sherman's March, in its self-absorbed fixation on its maker, Stone Reader is the perfect yuppie movie (if post-Reagan quasi-liberal SUV-driving family raising professionals are called yuppies anymore). Moskowitz narrates his own tale with an attention to detail about himself that is close to appalling. No bit of activity is too trivial for him to include in his movies, be it tearing open yet another FedEx package containing a copy of the book he has ordered off the WWW, or raking leaves contemplatively outside his lavish estate.
In the course of this quest, Moskowitz tracks down Leslie Fiedler (who died recently, but probably not because he figured in an episode of The Sopranos). Trembling in his dotage, but still fierce in his commitment to ideas and books, Fiedler is a gale force of sense, of outreach in contrast to Moskowitz's ill-defined and little understood obsession. That Moskowitz is obsessed with the book as a pretext for the film is a given. But as with all yuppie fixations, the obsession itself is not closely examined. Moskowitz claims Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel as a seminal influence on him, but the film backs off investigating the homoerotics of his own search for Mossman.
Also in his search Moskowitz looks up John Seelye, the author of the original NYT review that inspired Moskowitz to read the book lo those many years ago. And he finds a few others who might have known Mossman. Moskowitz doesn't really get anywhere in his search for the physical Mossman until he tracks down one of the author's associates in Iowa. This guy even knows where Mossman lives (though he hadn't seen Mossman for something like 30 years). Finally, Moskowitz is on the verge of meeting the man. It's been two years since Moskowitz began his search. Yet the film does not make this momentous occasion at all interesting. Instead of sitting on the edge of our seat in anticipation or moved by Moskowitz's success, we are slightly bored, worn down by the filmmaker's narcissism.
That's just one of a number of problems with Moskowitz's project. For another, his taste in books is bland. He hauls out the usual stuff: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Catcher in the Rye, Sister Carrie. Only occasionally does something unusual pop up, such as Gaddis's The Recognitions. There is nothing wrong with Moskowitz's book club list in and of itself, especially given that Americans as a whole, that is those who read at all, prefer such bland middlebrow "literature." However, the mainstream quality of Moskowitz's taste in books undermines his proselytizing for Mossman, whose prose we barely meet in the movie. "I like subplots and twists in stories," he counsels us at one point.
Another disappointing element is that Moskowitz is a jerk. Sounding a little like Rob Morrow from Northern Exposure, he is pushy, impatient, naïve, a dog hunting a bone. He has no manners and little patience for people who don't bear the name Moskowitz. He is physically crude. He literally throws a book at Robert Gottlieb. Robert Gottlieb! Who, by the way, in the spirit of schoolyard punching bags all across America, just barely catches it. Gottlieb, who is talking about editing Catch-22, is fumbling for a remark about Mossman's book, and Moskowitz tosses the hefty tome into Gottlieb 's lap. There is a telling moment later in the film when Moskowitz is about to call Mossman but first calls (of course) his mother. As he is hanging up after a pep talk, she counsels, "And don't be abrupt." Clearly that has been a problem in his life.
You see the abruptness when Moskowitz finally meets the very damaged Mossman. In short order and at Moskowitz's urging they are shown tearing through his house looking for the author's original contract. Moskowitz wants to see if there is a clause in the contract that reverts ownership back to Mossman, who can then authorize a reprint. Opening drawers, entering rooms closed off for years, tromping through a water damaged basement, Moskowitz doesn’t see because he is so focused on that one possession. He stomps through the house the same way that he tears open packages from Amazon containing yet another copy of The Stones of Summer he has picked up, depriving others of the very book he is promoting so avidly.
Maybe it's a good thing, but Moskowitz doesn’t seem particularly bookish. He comes across like an eager frat boy who took up an interest in books rather than the Knicks or white water rafting. You can't imagine him relaxing long enough to read a book (although in a quiet moment he is shown in a hammock actually reading–perhaps it is characteristic that soon he has fallen asleep). You can't really imagine Moskowitz, as presented in the film, really being all that interested in the mind of another to want to spend that many hours reading a book.
When Moskowitz finally meets Mossman, the 52-year-old writer turns out to have spent 20 years working as a welder, four years taking care of his ill mother, and recently working nights at a printing press folding newspapers (he was laid off while Moskowitz was filming him). Looking and sounding like Wilford Brimley, he is interested in what he likes but seems not to have the social skills to realize that others don't care. He starts thoughts and doesn't finish them, tells dull anecdotes, and basically seems like what he is, an intense guy too fragile for society at large who spent some time in a mental ward. He comes across like Robert Crumb's brother Charles in Crumb, a daft guy living in a rubbish laden house.
The most interesting person Moskowitz meets is Carl Brandt, Mossman's editor at Bobbs Merrill (Moskowitz throws books at him, too). With his wavy hair, smoker's voice, firm square "dad's" jaw, and reassuring manner, unequivocal in his believe that Stones of Summer is a "great book," he is deeply touched by Moskowitz's quest and shocked at what happened to Mossman afterwards.
Visually, the film is undistinguished. A lot of it looks like a commercial, such as shots of M and M walking almost hand in hand before a setting sun. There are cutaways to people's hands as they talk, which even 60 Minutes hasn't done in decades. More interested in what's going through Moskowitz's mind than what's on the culture's EKG, the film barely investigates its initial premise, what Moskowitz calls "one and done," one shot novelists like Harper Lee, John Kennedy Toole, and the guys who wrote Mister Roberts and Raintree County. In fact, there is a book about them, called Ross and Tom, that addresses similar issues with depth and sensitivity. Of course, you'd have to read it.
In An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, Sven Birkerts includes an important, touching essay about his own relationship with reading that is probably the best thing ever written on the subject. Stone Reader needed a little of that, and a little bit of the Nicholson Baker touch, a love of literature and anger at its mistreatment. But Stone Killer has had one effect on literary culture: a recent visit to the Advanced Book Exchange (www.abe.com) revealed that dealers have already started raising their price on the book, including one in the Southwest who is offering a copy for $1200 dollars. But of course such a copy isn't meant to be read.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.